The French Quarter is Alive and Kickin’
New Orleans — White rays of early evening sun and an intermittent hot, muggy breeze spill through the space between the sill and the bottom of the double-hung window, created by the coffee mug pilfered from the bathroom. The homey feel created by the cracked window panes and the empty shutter hinges mixes with the sounds of cars passing on the street four stories below and the sultry voice of a female singer from a bar two doors down.
I’m the only one who’ll walk across the fire for you.
I’m the only one who’ll drown in my desire for you.
Those words echo the devotion New Orleanians have for their Crescent City. After driving past the small mountains of debris, blue-tarped roofs — some unblemished, stretched smooth and held into place with tacking strips, other shredded and twisting like surreal, iridescent spaghetti thwarted in a vain attempt to escape — houses with gaping holes, deserted shopping centers and boarded-up apartment buildings, the normal sounds of the city make it clear that many are here to stay.
Who else but a die-hard would stay in place where the kindest description is “devastated?” Decimated is a little closer to the truth.
Even on Sunday, in the heart of the Bible belt, a small dozer was scooping up curbside piles of family treasures turned to trash by water, mud and mold. The dump truck waiting nearby wasn’t going to hold much of what was lining the road.
Construction workers were placing particle board on what looked to be the new roof of a new retail establishment. A man with a two-wheel cart backed a dishwasher out of a house, down a makeshift ramp of springy wood. Hard labor won’t be enough for some houses, and the occasional house with fresh paint and new windows stands out as a beacon of hope — or a foil for the futility surrounding it.
It’s only fear that makes you run.
I’m the only one who’ll drown in my desire for you.
During the volunteers’ orientation earlier today we were asked to take pictures and share them with people we know. Awareness of “the tale of two cities” is essential and a difficult balance to achieve. The need for volunteers and tourism dollars can be seen in the upper and lower Ninth Ward, where spray-painted messages of “2 dogs fed & water, need p/u” are still visible in bright red. The open storefronts and a mime standing on the corner, along with the snatches from the next set filtering between car horns and the conversation of the two couples on the balcony across the way, are proof that all was not lost to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
When taking pictures, if confronted by locals saying, “This is a tourism-free area,” respectfully acknowledge their frustration and difficulty. Bear witness to their situation and let them know why you’re in the area — helping to build new homes.
Come on, come on, come on, take another little piece of my heart…
Not rebuilding homes in an area prone to flooding and already in decline makes sense — until it’s your home. What happened to the people who lived in these homes? Where are they? Have they been back to see what’s left? Water lines run like jagged, aging scars at various heights along many of the abandoned buildings. Others have colorful patches of paint where the search teams spray painted their observations in plain view.
“Dog dead in attic”
What would be worse? Knowing your pet was killed or not knowing what happened to her? What must it feel like to return home and read the fate of the family pet sprayed in the space between your front door and a window? What if it was the neighbor’s dog? Where would you go to find out about the “10/4 dog prints inside, found kitten” on the corner grocery store wall?
… if it makes you feel good
It’s a year later and the population of the Ninth Ward — 25,178 pre-Katrina — is now at 4,578; both are estimates, of course. The evil giant Wal-Mart hasn’t just boarded up its building; the sign is even gone. For once I’d like to see them with doors open and a full parking lot. McDonald’s is closed. In-ground pools are filled with black water, not children splashing on a 90-degree afternoon. White trailers are parked in front of, between or as close as possible to houses that look like they ought to be condemned.
I just can’t seem to drink you off my mind.
Give me, give me, give me the honky-tonk blues.
Then bright, even jaunty, homes of coral, fuchsia, Caribbean blue and yield-sign yellow of the new houses come into view.
“You’re in New Orleans.”
Let’s give ’em something to talk about,
A little mystery to figure out.
It took a rumor to make me wonder.
I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to have survived “the big one” and come back to this. I was here once when I was a kid, and the only distinct memory I have is of the hotel where my father’s convention was being held and the jostling of bodies on busy sidewalks. If you want to have some elbow room, now is the time to visit New Orleans. Bring your camera along with your compassion to support your neighbors in need of understanding — and your checkbook. After giving to the relief efforts last year, bringing yourself down here is the best way to have a good time and truly make a difference with your vacation dollars.
— Margo Pierce